It’s the most thrilling, in-your-face, insulting, elevating, momentum-shifting, exhilarating, gravity-shunning play in basketball: the slam dunk. It’s the perennial star of highlight reals and always, hogs the spotlight at every NBA All-Star weekend. Here is a brief history of how basketball’s most explosive play came into existence.
Way, way back in the day, backboards and out-of-bounds were optional and some basketball games were waged in cages—true story. It was then that a fellow by the name of (“Jumpin”?) Jack Inglis performed the first slam dunk in history… with a little help from the cage.
According to author Bill Gutman, Inglis “jumped up alongside the basket, grabbed the cage, and pulled himself up alongside the basket. While the defenders looked up at him helplessly, a teammate passed him the ball. Inglis caught it while hanging onto the cage with one hand and dropped it through the basket.”
The first documented player to dunk in an organized game was 6-foot-8 Joe Fortenberry, and he did it in short-shorts. While training for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the USA captain “reached up and pitched the ball downward into the hoop, much like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee,” according to the New York Times. Fortenberry, who could dunk with two hands until age 55, is also credited as the cause for the goaltending rule because the lanky Texan would routinely stand under his own basket on defence and swat balls away from the rim.
During the 1940s and ’50s, seven-foot Olympic gold medallist Bob Kurland was regularly dunking during games. Defenders took offence, seeing the dunk as an insult that broke an unwritten rule. So much so, they started taking out the legs from a dunker midair to injure them.
The NCAA banned the slam prior to the 1967-68 college season due to injury concerns, citing 1,500 incidents where a player was hurt around the backboard the season prior. The ban was dubbed the “Lew Alcindor Rule” after the UCLA star and slam sultan who would later become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The dunk began its vicious and creative ascent in the 1960s and got nasty in the ’70s. Lofty legends like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain slammed with ease, but it was the high-flying antics of Julius “Dr J” Erving and Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins – who shattered two backboards with his Tomahawk dunk, forcing the NBA to install rims that bend and snap back into position – that made it a crowd pleaser.
Oh, you fancy now?
The American Basketball Association – the one that played with a red, white and blue ball – held the first dunk contest in 1976, the same year the NCAA lifted its ban. However, the next dunk showcase would not arrive until 1984 as a result of the ABA-NBA merger later that season.
By then, all bets were off. We’ve seen 5-foot-7 Spud Webb double-pump, Dominque Wilkens whip powerful windmills, and Michael Jordan soar from the free throw line.
Not unlike skateboard culture, dunkers try to one-up each other (and themselves) via creativity, difficulty, and combinations. Between the legs, elbow hangs, alley-oops, blindfolded, 360s, 540s, and more, ... the sky’s the limit.